To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. This piece was published in light of the Tampa Affair.
To provide a meaningful counterpoint we will also be publishing a series of creative, critical and insightful responses to these works from contemporary writers and artists. In response to this piece Safdar Ahmed has created an illustration titled ‘A monument to Un-Australia.’
We have an absolute right to decide who comes into this country and there is concern… that we are fast reaching the stage of losing that right.
That boat will never land in our waters… never.
John Howard, 28 August 2001
On the same day that asylum seekers aboard the MV Tampa were being treated to such consideration, I was delivering a lecture at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne on migration to Australia following the Second World War. I asked the audience to remember that behind the ‘normalising’ rhetoric of official statements on migration and settlement in Australia is a long history of difficult and painful arrivals, of being ‘unsettled’. Politicians’ responses to the recent refugee crisis, and popular responses as reported in the press and other media, would appear to confirm that we have great difficulty with this problem of unsettlement.
Observing these responses, it occurs to me that most of us are unable to empathise with asylum seekers because we fail to acknowledge personal and national struggles with the difficulties of arrival in an alien place—with the crisis of belonging and sense of loss engendered by this event. And this is partly because we have suppressed memories of our own successive arrivals on these shores.
National memory in Australia is shaped as much by what is forgotten as what is remembered. When we can’t recognise or re-create our own sense of loss, why should we expect any recognition for that of Sharaz Khayani, the Pakistani asylum seeker who immolated himself earlier this year, or Viliami Tanginoa, the Tongan who died from a fall as he tried to escape deportation in 2000? Race, of course, also plays a crucial role in this situation. The premises of many anti-asylum-seeker arguments make this dramatically dear. Several callers to Sydney radio stations immediately linked the Tampa issue to stories of ‘pack rape by migrant gangs’, while others said it proved that One Nation ‘had been right all along’. Letters to the Australian worried over the ‘disturbing trend’ towards ‘ethnic tribalism’ in our society, and Australia’s ‘lily-livered’ approach to it. Letters to the Age referred to ‘the strictures imposed on the majority by multiculturalism and political correctness’, and to the perceived problem of ‘these people’ not ‘mixing well into the general population’. In the Herald Sun, Andrew Bolt, whose columns find considerable support among Herald readers, was moved to reflect (after a verdict in which a man won an appeal against a charge for farting in a public place) that ‘never before in our history since white settlement have we had such trouble working out a morality we can share’:
Mass immigration—combined with the poisonous philosophy of multiculturalism—has left us dangerously close to becoming, not a nation, but a gaggle of ethnic and religious groups. We didn’t need the alarming news of ethnic gangs in Sydney and pack-rapes of racially selected victims to know we were in trouble.
Bolt then provided as ‘evidence’ problems caused by ‘unassimilated and underemployed Vietnamese youths’, the ‘hand-out happy’ Lebanese, the un-Australian Muslim leaders, and Aboriginal leaders who want a ‘nation where the “laws of the white man would not apply”’.1
All this was before the terrorist attacks in the USA. Since the events of 11 September, the full Pandora’s box of Australian anxiety about ethnicity has been opened. Under the headline ‘Batten the Hatches’, the Herald Sun’s letters page: evinced fear and hatred of ‘barbarians at the gates’ and ‘the godless individuals coming into Australia with dangerous fundamentalist mentalities and contempt for the laws of our land: as well as the ‘snivel libertarians: ‘I’m starting to get angry with some cultures,’ wrote a woman from Beechworth. A writer from Seaford commented that ‘the decision of Justice North [to return the Tampa boat people to the mainland] makes me very nervous in my own country’. A common theme was wanting to keep ‘our country safe for Australian families and Australian children’. Nothing less than the Australian way of life was now perceived to be under threat. A columnist in the Australian warned that Australia is ‘cursed with uncertainty’ and advised us to look to Americans, who ‘know who they are-one nation under God’, and to develop an understanding of our national self ‘infused, as with incense, by a sense of the sacred’.2
In the face of all this, I have been pleased to find that the Immigration Museum where I delivered my lecture has found the space to address the phenomenon of loss and to encapsulate the full compound of emotional events entailed in—but also hidden by—the word ‘migration’. Whenever I enter the initial ‘Leavings’ gallery I find myself close to tears, and I believe this is because it offers a space to dwell for a moment with loss. Here is a place that represents the brink of immigration—that re-creates the moment of expectation and hesitation before embarking on the process. It accommodates an expression of sadness and grief for what is left behind.
Two recent temporary exhibitions at the museum have indicated useful directions for future attention to this pervasive motif of loss. The first, ‘In Search of Freedom: Refugee Journeys’, was a timely exhibition that used photographs and objects to tell individual stories of the refugee as ‘a person who is forced to flee their homeland’. One visitor imaginatively linked the story of a Mexican refugee, Salvador, with a judgment of the Australian Federal Court in December 1998 on the Yorta Yorta people. This judgment declared that the connection of these people to their land had been ‘washed away by the tide of history’, On learning how the Mexican man’s connection to the country of his ancestors was symbolised through a great-grandfather’s scarf, this visitor was moved to write:
I thought about what it is that constitutes character and tradition and how it may be immeasurable… before the law. And I thought about a man named Salvador, his great grandfather’s brightly knitted scarf and the need to welcome him and other refugees to Aboriginal Australia.3
The second exhibition, ‘?Lost and Found’, has been quite overt about such connections, featuring both singular and collaborative works by migrant and indigenous artists around the themes of dislocation and belonging. Here artists have undertaken important memory-work that manages to reveal what a wrenching and truly extraordinary thing it is to leave your native culture, your environment, your land, and to find yourself in a completely new place. The exhibition features treasured items brought in trunks and chests that assert vivid memories of places and people still cherished. But there are also works that inscribe memories of ‘loss’, of ‘shame’, of being an ‘outsider’, and that record the voices of those who have learnt ‘you can only look forward after looking back’. Here there are voices unafraid to admit that ‘my country continually lures me home’. A ceramic installation, ‘The Space Between Alienation and Assimilation’, explores the experience of 280 Polish refugees who went to Tasmania to build villages, roads, dams and power stations in the 1950s. Through the vision of twisted, huddled torsos trapped within nature and an alien culture, we are reminded again of territory so movingly covered by Richard Flanagan in The Sound of One Hand Clapping. In another installation. entitled ‘Listen to the Ground’, two artists have hung small photographs on rows of string, signifying threads of memory and of relationships, past and continuing. They evoke the search not for an absolute but for a contingent sense of home.
As the stories of celebratory multiculturalism prove insufficient maps for negotiating more problematic contemporary terrain, such artists have attempted to assemble a new vocabulary for articulating loss. They find room for the lost interior stranger, that part of themselves not absorbed or melted into the ‘multicultural’ or ‘indigenous’.
Nevertheless, the placing of a question mark in the title of the exhibition—before ‘Lost’ rather than after ‘Found’—signals the fact that this exhibition challenges and marks a break with prevailing ideology. In many respects, the story that dominates even the Immigration Museum is one of the ‘safe investment’ of migration and of migrant achievement. Loss is not a tone that is evident in the celebration of ‘rich abundance’ that confronts us in the final ‘Impacts’ gallery. Arnold Zable’s ‘Celebration’ essay, which forms the basis for this display, movingly invokes ‘our calendars crowded with celebrations that have brought the world to our doors’, and the belief that ‘it can all be embraced, both the past and the present, the ancient and the new’. But while duly emphasising Australia’s ‘cosmopolitan society made up of many possibilities’, it does not acknowledge the notes of lament that are also part of the ‘grand symphony with many melodies’. Loss can be found in the Immigration Museum but it is muffled by celebration.
It is understandable to yearn to be found. No wonder that the institutional manifestation of such histories—the galleries displaying the achievement of a supposedly distinct Australian way of life—have been and are still popular in our museums. But these galleries of gain cut off some of our most instructive stories and experiences. It is also a shame that the Immigration Museum’s stories are separate from Museum Victoria’s other social history exhibits; that stories of migration exist in Melbourne not as core components of Australian history, but as a separate set of observations, an institutionally divided migrant or multicultural margin. Greater integration is needed to emphasise the sense of disinheritance and loss involved in all migrations to this country from the beginnings of white settlement onwards.
Perhaps if we had a more pluralistic or diverse understanding of ourselves as part of the world, we wouldn’t be so afraid of outsiders. Perhaps then we wouldn’t feel that our ‘Australian way of life is under threat.’ Dawn Fraser’s daughter may not have been prompted to write to the papers that she was ‘sick to my stomach, that we may be no longer safe in our own country’ and to believe that her mother ‘could be targeted because of her achievements.’4 My first, perhaps ungenerous, thought was: well, somebody had better get Phar Lap to the bunkers.
Museums will always be important agents of public memory. The mnemonic role of our museums and collections needs, therefore, to be scrutinised more carefully. We certainly need to develop new and different ways of representing Australian histories in the face of a globalising economy and of an ever-increasing international flow of people, ideas and cultures. Yet it will not be enough to replace national with transnational galleries of gain, so that we end up with something more ‘cosmopolitan’, with galleries of ‘diasporic peoples’ multiple belongings, and histories that ‘de-centre the nation’. Certainly we need these things, but we don’t need them to become museum displays that—to echo Jean Baudrillard—’incinerate, absorb and devour’ the cultural awareness of loss.5
I would prefer to see Australian museums more regularly provoke discomfort than celebrate achievement. Loss is one of the things we should be endeavouring to understand at the moment. As Peter Mares argued in his recent account of Australia’s response to refugees, we seem to be fixated with pull rather than push factors—with what attracts people to Australia rather than what forces them to leave their homeland.6 The migrant story begins as one of loss, but we are unable to see this, and unable or unwilling to confront our own heritage of loss. Asylum seekers who arrive spontaneously in Australia pose a fundamental challenge to our cherished notions of sovereignty by refusing to play by our rules. But they also threaten to remind us of issues that some of us have sought to leave behind—to prick the bubble of our self-deceit. So best keep them away, out of sight and out of mind. Few of us seem to want to understand conditions in a country beset with war for the last twenty years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated that in 2000 Australia took seven Afghan families, totalling twenty-one people, through official channels. If you believe opinion polls, most of us still want to go to war against Afghanistan. which could bring to a halt the humanitarian relief work that is under way.
Much has been made recently of the fact that 11 September 200I was a day ‘when the world changed’. But nothing really changed. True, as Studs Terkel wrote: ‘That which is called the impregnable Fortress America has been touched’, and Americans now had to ‘learn that we are part of this world’. But Terkel also noted that America was inclined to forget the ways in which its religion—the free market—has led to national as well as international poverty and despair, and worried that ‘we have no memory of yesterday’.7 Many Australians also have no full memory of their yesterdays, let alone understanding of the fact that history might begin in different places for different people.
- Australian, 27 August 2001; Age, I September 2001; Herald Sun, 10 September 2001.
- Herald Sun, 13 September 2001; Australian, 18 September 2001.
- Tony Birch, ‘Returning to Country’, in Carolyn Rasmussen et al., A Museum for the People: A History of Museum Victoria and Its Predecessors 1854-2000 (Melbourne, 200I), p. 400, reviewed in this issue of Meanjin by John Mulvaney.
- Australian, 18 September 2001.
- Cf. Ann Curthoys, ‘History for the Nation, or for the World’, Museum National 10, pp. lO-llj citation from Baudrillard in Chris Healy, ‘Histories and Collecting: Museums, Objects and Memories’, in Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton (eds), Memory and History in Twentieth-Century Australia (Melbourne, 1994), p. 34.
- Peter Mares, Borderline: Australia’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Sydney, 2001), p. 31.
- Age, 17 September 2001.
Meanjin Volume 60 Issue 4 2001
The full Meanjin archive can be accessed at www.informit.com.au/meanjinbackfiles